Opinion - 02 Feb 2005
A new travelling exhibition by the US Drug Enforcement Agency says as much about America’s relationship to the rest of the world as it does about the dangers of narcotics
Unsmiling security guards go through the motions of the pat-down tango with an air of deep gloom. As they stoop to examine your shoes, they resemble Sisyphean treasure hunters doomed to search exhausted ground; even your belt buckle fails to halt the deadening sweep of their metal-detecting batons. The building you are entering sits in the heart of New York’s gaudy Times Square. Twenty years ago, if a baton-wielding man had asked you to empty out your pockets here, it would not have been as a safety precaution. Indeed there is a mood conjured by this security check that will stay with you throughout your visit – a feeling of the similarities between interaction and infringement, of security breeding insecurity. Welcome to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s cautionary exhibition ‘Target America: Drug Traffickers, Terrorists and You’, on display at Times Square until 31 January 2005.
On entering the exhibition you are immediately met by the wreckage of a car that has smashed into a pile of porcelain toilets, Walkmans, Nintendo games, needles, crack phials and family photos. Henry Rollins berates the viewer about methamphetamine from a television amid the wreck. It is on such a local and personal level that traditional drug education usually thrives – a drug-addled driver slaughters an unsuspecting family while a popular entertainment figure rebukes us for our complacency. Yet for ‘Target America’ this is only the tip of the iceberg. Its plan is to take us on a journey from the micro to the macro, from individual action to mass destruction. In keeping with the present administration’s fundamental concerns, it seeks to produce a very holy fear in the viewer, for it insists that one person’s weakness can not only affect those immediately around him, but can bedevil the rest of humanity.
Beyond the car wreck you hear new voices in a language that is hard to make out. Ah yes, they must be emanating from the full-scale replica of a heroin-processing laboratory in Afghanistan. Large piles of powder are heaped on the ground next to a few perfunctory oil drums. A plastic Uzi hangs from the wall. (Curiously enough, it is situated right next to the museum shop, where you can buy Beanie Babies wearing DEA shirts and porcelain figurines of New York City firefighters.) We are now in the world of FARC-EP and the Shining Path, of money-laundering and hostage-taking. Confused, you look back to see that Rollins has been replaced on the television set by somebody having spasms on a bathroom floor. Past the diorama of a Colombian cocaine factory (bigger guns, whiter powder), the historical displays have Perspex hemispheres hovering above them to localize and focus explanatory voices down onto your head. They are inescapably reminiscent of the classic brainwashing helmets of old B-movies.
There is a didactic narrative here -– that drugs and terrorism are intertwined – but the peculiarity of some of the dioramas insists on undermining the seriousness of this mission. A collection of hats – one peaked, one fur, one yellow cowgirl Stetson – is marked with the surreal caption ‘it is not possible to tell from the hat that a person wears if he or she is part of the legitimate government
or a terrorist’. Should the historical display section really have placed a portrait of Thomas De Quincey next to one of Pablo Escobar? Upstairs there is a ‘crack den’ installation, complete with pump-action shotgun, cigarettes, a baby’s crib and soiled nappies, which is so hectoring as to be unintentionally hilarious.
Indeed some of the exhibits are endearing enough to make narco-terrorism surprisingly hard to condemn. While nothing reaches the celebratory excesses of Rob Pruitt’s Cocaine Buffet (1998) – a five-metre-long mirror laid on the floor with a line of cocaine running down the middle, which visitors to his studio were invited to partake in – there are some strangely aggrandizing exhibits. Carlos Lehder’s revolutionary rhetoric about cocaine being the ‘atomic bomb’ with which to fight US imperialism has an undeniable attractiveness to its symbolism. Similarly the massively enlarged mug shots of the Ochoa brothers, leaders of the infamous Medellín cartel, do not appear malevolent so much as romantic; three smacked-up Che Guevaras peering out at the lens. Perhaps the DEA has not heard that the drug-dealing video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City sold 15 million copies in the United States. As such, the knowledge that $1 million in $20 bills weighs 11 kilos and fits into a legal-size briefcase may not have quite the edifying effect that was intended.
The DEA, however, won’t give up on their mission, and the final exhibit supplies the moral pay dirt. Here at the end of the gallery are some twisted metal, dusty shoes and burnt paper saved from the destruction of the World Trade Center, acting as an incongruous deadweight to any previous flights of whimsy you might have had. This transparent co-opting of the ‘War on Terror’ by the ‘War on Drugs’, that withering vestige of the Ronald Reagan presidency, helps further reveal the show’s true colours. For in many ways ‘Target America’ is most reminiscent of one of Mike Nelson’s dread-inspiring narrative spaces, such as The Coral Reef (1999–2000). Both the DEA and Nelson have a fascination with the theatrical, the elaborate and the seemingly real. Both rely on a multitude of different ethnic and cultural decorations, and both are enthralled by power relations and counter cultural radicals. The effects of their shows are also strikingly similar, with both creating a mood of dislocation and uneasiness in the viewer. If anything, however, the DEA’s show is even more paranoid than Nelson’s. For in ‘Target America’ it is reality itself that has been subtly altered. Here is the installation as propaganda; drugs become ‘death pills’, dealers are constantly out for their ‘next fix’, the ‘ghetto’ is always in flames. All the while ‘Target America’ never breaks its straight face. Despite the DEA’s insistence that the show is intended to educate, its primary goal is to scare.
One of the main differences between Nelson’s approach and that of the DEA is their respective relationship to scale. Many have said of Nelson’s sinister spaces that his ultimate intention is to build a work of art so vast that it consumes the reality around it. The DEA has succeeded. This is not the inter-zone of Nelson’s work but an omni-zone, a zone that does not slip between nations but which incorporates states into it. The DEA has created a brilliant mask of fear for the whole world to wear.
First published in Issue 88